It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.
– Millard Fuller
Millard Fuller, who died on Feb 2, 2009, was widely regarded as the leader of the modern-day movement for affordable housing and a revolutionary thinker. But his career didn’t start that way.
He demonstrated early that he knew how to make things happen. In the 50’s he and a college friend named Morris Dees started a marketing firm to help pay the bills while they were attending the University of Alabama Law School. Selling everything from cookbooks to cleaning products, this little “sideline” proved very successful; by the time they reached the age of 29, both had become millionaires.
Millard married and the business grew. But as he prospered, both his health and home life suffered, and in the early 60’s, his wife Linda left him, taking their two young children with her.
It was devastating to Millard. And as is so often the case, this personal crisis prompted him to re-evaluate his values and his direction. He could see that the road he was on would never get him where he wanted to be.
So he stopped and completely changed the course of his life.
He and his wife reconciled, and together they decided to take massive action to turn their lives around. They sold off all their possessions, gave their money to charity, and began searching for a new purpose…a way to contribute, to enrich others, instead of just enriching themselves.
Their search led them to Koinonia Farm, an interracial Christian farming community located near Americus, Georgia.
With founder Clarence Jordan and others, they developed the concept of “partnership housing,” where those in need of adequate shelter would work side by side with volunteers to build basic, decent homes. It was a simple idea taken, frankly, from the basic values that grew the new world.
In 1968 they began making their homes available with no-interest mortgages to low income families. The buyers built their own houses and those of others, contributing what Fuller called “sweat equity” (the concept now of the home improvement show “This Old House”).
In 1973, Fuller moved to Africa with his wife and four children to put their vision to a real-world test.
In the town of Mbandaka, Zaire, they launched a home-building project which resulted in building homes for over 2000 poor people over the next 3 years.
Fuller became convinced that the model they were developing had elements that could be expanded and applied all over the world.
Upon their return to the United States in 1976, Millard and Linda met with a group of close associates in a converted chicken barn on Koinonia farm. Their planning sessions amid these humble surroundings gave birth to a new volunteer organization called Habitat for Humanity International, and Millard Fuller became its president.
Millard Fuller was always far more than just a homebuilder with a vision. He had a flair for fundraising, an exuberant and inspirational speaking style, and a strong sense of the rightness of what he was doing. He was the right leader for the group, and word began to spread.
From the start, the group had an ambitious aim: to help one million low-income people affordably build and own their own homes without accepting anygovernment money, other than for infrastructure improvements such as streets and sidewalks.
The concept was simple: the organization uses donated money and material, and volunteer labor, to build the homes for families who don’t qualify for other financing. The homes are built by volunteers and sold without profit, interest-free.
The homeowners contribute up to 500 hours of “sweat equity” to the construction of their own home, the homes of other partner families, or by volunteering to assist the organization in other ways.
Once moved into their new home, the family makes monthly, interest-free mortgage payments into a revolving “Fund for Humanity” which provides the capital to build homes for others.
Habitat for Humanity reached and surpassed its goal of housing a million people in August 2005. Today it is estimated to have put a roof over the heads of over 1.5 million people in over 100 countries worldwide. Fuller left Habitat after internal disagreements in 2005, and created a new organization, the Fuller Center for Housing. He continued to travel extensively, speaking at Habitat affiliates and Fuller Center Covenant Partnerships to raise awareness and funds in his effort to create better housing for those who need it…wherever they are.
Millard Fuller received many awards and accolades for his work, including the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award and the Harry S. Truman Public Service Award.
He has also received over 50 honorary doctorate degrees in recognition of the power of his vision and his commitment to giving people a decent place to live.
In 1996 President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In his address, the President commented
Millard Fuller has done as much to make the dream of homeownership a reality in our country and throughout the world as any living person.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Millard Fuller has literally revolutionized the concept of philanthropy.
Millard Fuller’s great mark will not just be the millions of people to whom he helped provide affordable houses. His genius was that he saw no need for poverty, because there are so many simple solutions if people put their minds – and hands – to work on them. As he said:
There are sufficient resources in the world for the needs of everybody… but not enough for the greed of even a significant minority